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hot docs talks: Audience Participation
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Hot Docs Talks
Transcripts from interviews conducted at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, April 25 - May 4, 2003

Theme 4: Audience Participation
Is interactive documentary putting viewers in the driver's seat? What happens when content is created not just by the auteur, but by the audience?

Sara Diamond and Peter Wintonick
Sara: It's interesting how [documentary] makers in a way sometimes create context rather than actual content. So they create a structure that people can contribute to. I think we really saw that with some of the younger makers who are creating audio environments and architectural spaces that people can leave stories in, or very sort of intimate person-to-person micro documentaries, but where there's a kind of contributing network from a community.

Peter: I guess in that sense there's a deprogramming of the ego out of the process, where you share authorship and share the power of creation. So there's this kind of power transference, if you want. And a kind of digital Buddha thing happens where the egolessness is a goal.

Velcrow Ripper
Scared Sacred began as a Web site in 1995, and it was one of the first artist-driven Web sites done at the Banff Centre for the Arts. It was actually devised as what I call a self-perpetuating online documentary. It was a really interesting concept. Basically, the themes of the film - or the themes of the Web site at that time - can be explored by the people that come online. And they can enter their own scared or sacred stories. Stories of hope in the face of their own personal experiences of suffering. So it builds itself.

1995 was a really exciting time in the Web. Really the Web had only been around for a year, it was Netscape 1.0, and we really began to see the Web as a new medium, a new way of expressing ourselves. Maybe it's exaggerating, but it was almost like the birth of cinema. You know, there were those early days when anything was possible. As a documentary filmmaker, I immediately began thinking, "Well, how can I change the way that I express myself and actually relate to an audience? Because it can be so personal and so direct and it can be interactive." So I wanted to develop a site that used those qualities of the Web, and also used the nonlinear aspect, so that people were in control of where they went, what sections they went to. And they actually helped create the content themselves.

Vanessa Bertozzi
The Web is just incredible in that it's so democratic. Anyone can go to it and listen. And on our site anyone can share. You can upload your files, or you can call the hotline and tell your own story and really be part of it. But another difference is, it costs as much as a film - but we're still working on it, its ongoing. We're still editing interviews, we're still getting submissions. So it just keeps growing, and trying to figure out how we're going to keep financing it is an issue.

Ben Jones: the-phone-book.ltd.uk has a bigger picture goal of inspiring ordinary people to create content for wireless spaces. We have a series of projects. We do a literature project called the the-phone-book.com, a mobile phone ring-tones and logos project called artones.net, and an animation and film making project called the-sketch-book.com.

Fee Plumley: And our whole premise is that most of the mobile-based content that you have available at the moment, or that you are being told will be available, is reappropriated TV or films or advertising. Our attitude is that what you want from a mobile phone and wireless technology is content that's been designed for people on the move. So, you want the spokes-systems and the spokes-content, but you don't want to be reading a novel on a mobile phone, you want to be reading a short story. You don't want to be watching a feature film on a mobile phone, you want to be watching a short animation.

Peter Lynch
It takes great concentration to make interactivity work. It's like, if you have a great relationship with a novel where you've lived with it for - some people live with a novel for their whole lives, with the Bible or something. They derive great meaning from a relationship with a book as a piece of architecture, and it's something they constantly refer back to, and it takes a lot of language and rigor for that to take a cultural meaning in their lives. It's not something you can just sweep up. And, you know, the interactivity thing gets bandied about, and I've been involved in new media since the late 70s, and I've heard that interactive stuff for so long - and in some senses it hasn't evolved one iota.

Rae Hall
I think if I look at Zed as an example, the emergence of new technologies is all about a transference of power. In the traditional television model, the power was all in the hands of a fairly small group of people and - benign though they were - it was still a benign dictatorship. I think that the kinds of technologies that are in the hands of everyone out there now means that they've got access to the kind of media where they can put together their own creative expression and, through projects such as Zed, find a wider platform for them.

Ana Serrano
The other part of the interactive medium that's equally important - I would even say more so - is the notion that it allows for a feedback loop between audience and author. So, as a documentary filmmaker - more so I think than a dramatic filmmaker - I think there's this real rich opportunity for the documentary producer. (Because, you know, we're talking about potential and interactive documentary producers.) For the documentary producer to see the audience as a medium. So how do they bring the audience into their conception of a message they're trying to interrogate? And how do you involve the audience in such a way as to make that key theme even a richer theme than you could possibly imagine if you did it in an auteur-driven way?

Alex Shuper
I really think that we are on the verge of a big technological breakthrough in terms of interactivity. The viewer will assume more editorial control. How much that will be remains to be seen. Will the viewer be able to affect the story we are watching? Probably one day. More likely, I think the viewer will be able to control the perspective through which they see a story unfolding. And in order to be able to do that, I think that people in general should have a better understanding of the visual language of motion pictures.

I think it's dismissive to consider Web sites as mere repositories for footage. But in the case of our film and Web site, there's definitely a synergy created between the two. The line between editor and viewer is definitely blurring. And one of the techniques we're using is something similar to what you see on shows like PBS's Frontline, where a textual prompt is put up on the screen inviting people to seek out more information - specifically a scene that didn't make the cut of the film. And in a sense that makes the editor a type of a viewer - because the viewer is making an editing decision whether or not they want to seek out more information, or what information they want to seek out.

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